Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a game about harmony: the harmony between Kena and the spirits, the spirits and their memories, Kena and the Rot, and you with your own thoughts on grief and letting go. All of this is key to ridding the world of the corruption that blights it, bringing back and letting the spirits that reside there pass on to the afterlife beyond. So while Kena: Bridge of Spirits has taken the internet by storm with its Studio Ghibli soot sprite-esque Rot, there's a depth to its narrative – and its gameplay – that looks at acceptance, and how to let go.
My hands-on demo – the same slice that'll be offered to ticket-holders for the Tribeca Games Showcase – begins just after the game's opening. Here Kena's trying to help a troubled spirit named Taro, with the help of his two younger brothers, whose round faces and huge expressive eyes make them look like they've been plucked from a Pixar animation.
Big eyes and bigger hearts
In fact, you wouldn't be surprised if the entire game was secretly a Pixar production. Developer Ember Labs has done a brilliant job of bringing Kena's world to life with the kind of attention to detail, glorious worlds, and big-eyed characters that you'd expect from a Pixar movie. The Rot are, of course, key to that – and not just in design. It's their behavior too. These little imps are your constant companions, and the moment you stop moving they'll cluster around Kena's feet, looking up at her lovingly with the kind of puppy-dog eyes that'll make your ovaries explode.
As you move around, you'll spot the Rot watching you from various perches, nestled in the rock face as you scale mountains, or balanced on the edge of the cliff looking out over the world below as you take a moment to pause at a meditation spot (and handily boost your maximum health). Find a hat cart and you can make your little companions don a mushroom, a frog, or a tiny bird's nest. You can't apply them individually as it's more of an auto-assign system dependent on the hats in your collection, but you will see those with hats among your cluster, which gives them a kind of individuality that's particularly charming.
They're not just adorable sidekicks though, they're also part of Kena's arsenal against the Corruption. During battles, you can command the Rot to bind to enemies or interact with corruption elements like the strange plants that spawn foes, or bright blue flowers that will restore your health. But, in order to coax the Rot to help you, you'll have to build up your Courage. This comes in the form of glowing yellow orbs that'll drop from enemies you attack and defeat, and once a circle in the bottom left of your screen is full, the Rot will feel brave enough to aid you in battle.
In conjunction with Courage, you'll also earn Karma for defeating corrupted enemies, restoring the environment, and finding juicy fruits for your Rot to eat. The higher your Karma, the more additional Rot abilities you'll be able to unlock. In this preview, I opted for a Rot Hammer move that – when I had enough Courage stored – saw the Rot collecting on the end of my staff that I could then smack on the ground for a devastating attack. The more Rot you find, the more Courage you'll be able to store too, allowing you to chain together various Rot abilities for the more challenging enemy types.
Even without the Rot diving in for an assist, Kena has her own moves that she can wield in battle. Initially, she has her staff, which can dish out light or heavy attacks, and her pulse ability. This offers Kena a shield by pressing L1 or when held down and released can be used to interact with the Rot in various ways. Later on, though, you'll meet someone who'll teach Kena to transform her staff into a bow, which gives combat another layer of complexity.
The combat is much more complex than I expected, and including the Rot in the way you approach each fight adds another unique element to each fight. Plus learning how to chain Kena and the Rot's abilities together is incredibly satisfying, even in this limited preview session.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits also has a pleasing balance between the combat, exploration and platforming, and the more emotional narrative sections. This first area – which Ember Labs says is deliberately a little more linear and less vertical than later areas to let players ease into the game's systems – will have you scaling a mountain to seek guidance from Mr Rusu in order to help find Taro. He'll be able to guide you to find one of the three relics you'll need to find Taro.
Each of the spirits you're trying to guide will have associated relics that you'll need to find to help them remember who they were; items from their life that they're bound to. This includes a special mask for each spirit, which will give Kena abilities that will help aid them too. For Taro, his mask allows Kena to see markers in the world that are otherwise hidden, including the footsteps of hidden Rot that you'll want to discover. Once you've found all of a spirit's lost relics, you'll trigger a fight with a boss, which is actually the spirit you're trying to reach in its corrupted form.
All of this comes together to make a beautifully compelling adventure that I can't wait to see more of. I'm anticipating plenty of heartstring tugs and emotional moments as you move through the game's narrative, but blending with impressively layered combat and platforming sections with that Pixar-level graphical quality. Getting time to get hands-on with Kena: Bridge of Spirits only solidified it as one of the most highly-anticipated games of the year.